Sheila Mitchell on government advertising: we used to send out ringbinders to people
A view from Sheila Mitchell

Sheila Mitchell on government advertising: we used to send out ringbinders to people

A new government comes with new priorities, and my month began with ministerial meetings to clarify how best marketing and communications can support these.

It’s already clear that obesity and diabetes will receive more focus. I have always been an advocate for the potential to use the marketing discipline to change behaviour, prevent illness and save money for the NHS and social-care services, so it’s great to see some of the opportunities that are emerging.

In particular, we are developing an exciting campaign to improve the health of adults between the ages of 40 and 60. Digital fulfilment will be at the heart of this campaign and I find myself reflecting on how much has changed while I’ve been at the helm here.

When I started as marketing director in 2007, we used to send out ringbinders to people who signed up to our campaigns, followed by monthly booklets on how to eat a better diet or build exercise into your life.

Public-health campaigns tend to target the C2DE demographic and, at that time, most didn’t have internet access in the home, so the mail was the most cost-effective way to reach them. Now they have Facebook accounts and smartphones, with the capability to monitor their heart rates, track their movements, access discount vouchers for healthier products, calculate what they are saving from not smoking, take a programme of cognitive behavioural therapy and, crucially, share how they feel about it with their social networks.

Real-time monitoring

Whether it’s Asda, the Daily Mirror, Alzheimer’s Society or England’s 152 local councils, the leverage we achieve from our finite resources continues to astound me

So the partworks are gone, replaced by a digital self-assessment tool and a range of evidence-based support products, helping people set health-improvement goals, monitor their progress and receive immediate and tailored feedback on a wide range of health behaviours. And at a time when proving impact is even more important, technology is allowing us to monitor who has signed up and how they are getting on in real time.

While the new campaign won’t launch until 2016, it is taking up a lot of my team’s time. For us, the heavy lifting isn’t in uncovering a breakthrough insight or developing an outstanding creative idea (although kudos to the creative geniuses at M&C Saatchi here) but in ‘walking it around’ potential partners – local authorities, the NHS, employers, charities and the commercial sector.

Our campaigns have achieved what they have not just because of what we do, but the way others take them up, provide incentives, products and services, and make them their own. Whether it’s Asda, the Daily Mirror, Alzheimer’s Society or England’s 152 local councils, the leverage we achieve from our finite resources continues to astound me. And I am always keen to hear from organisations that genuinely share our agenda and want to help.

For example, we are currently launching a fantastic Change4Life campaign which expands our existing strategic partnership with Disney. Our research tells us that, for children, exercise needs to be fun, and for parents, Change4Life is the brand they trust to keep their kids active throughout the summer holidays.

The first year Change4Life partnered Disney, we managed to get children doing an extra 104m active minutes in total. This year, we’re asking children to sign up to their favourite Disney team, be it Frozen, Big Hero 6, Monsters or Toy Story. Children complete 10-minute ‘Shake Ups’ (bursts of activity) to add to their team’s total, all with a helping hand from their favourite Disney characters.

Global influence

Leaving Elsa and Baymax behind, I was off to a meeting of the Smart Energy GB behaviour-change panel, on which I sit. This is a national programme that aims to get every household in Britain fitted with a smart meter by 2020, so that we can all take control of our energy use. There are so many parallels with what we do in health – monitoring, setting goals and supporting change – and it’s exciting to see the same principles applied to another problem once thought intractable.

Recently, there has been growing international interest in how we develop and deliver our programmes. This month, I’ve had a teleconference with the Mexican public health department, discussing diabetes and teenage pregnancy, been asked to talk to Turkey about childhood obesity and to the World Health Organisation about sharing best practice. It is a great testament not only to the skill of my team, but also to the creativity of the UK marketing and communications industry, that our work is increasingly viewed as world-class.

Toward the end of this month, I took my team out of the office (although, it being public money, not very far) for an ‘awayday’. As always, I found myself thinking how fortunate I am to have such a diverse, enthusiastic and talented team. They designed the day and we had fantastic speakers who made us laugh, re-evaluate and even cry (the tears were mainly male).

My month ended with the news that our Be Clear on Cancer campaign won silver for effectiveness at the international AMEC Awards. When we win awards, it’s heartening to see others recognise the value – not just financial (although as a public servant I am accountable to the Cabinet Office for every penny we spend), but, in this case, lives saved.

The award’s evaluation of our work showed that there are hundreds of people walking around today, who would have died had they not been encouraged by our campaign to see the doctor and get their cancer treated in its early stages.

A fitting end to a busy month, indeed.